It was my daughter actually, raised outside India, who pointed it out. “Mum,” she asked puzzled, while on a holiday in India, “Why do Indians never make eye-contact with poverty?”
Of course, the average Indian’s indifference to the unpleasant underbelly of society is well documented. But if three recent films are anything to go by, middle-class India seems to be waking up and seeing its other, poorer half and even saying a weak hello.
Priyanka Chopra-Rajkummar Rao-starrer The White Tiger is the latest and biggest of these films. Based on Aravind Adiga’s 2008 Man Booker-winning novel, it is the story of a boy born into the darkness of rural poverty in Bihar who gets a driver’s job with his landlord’s son in the city and ultimately lifts himself into a life of riches as an entrepreneur.
Written in the form of letters to the Chinese Premier, it is as much a Marxist indictment of India’s class divide as it is of the caste system which keeps people firmly in their ‘rooster coop’. The story has a violent resolution, but what struck me was that it is told in the first person by the protagonist himself.
‘The White Tiger’, as he likes to call himself, is one of a kind — a man who hates his past and wants to build his own future. He is uncouth, unremarkable, and unethical but we are forced to not just ‘see’ Balram Halwai but also hear him. Instead of being the unseen, unheard chauffeur, Balram actually decides his personal destination, drives himself to it, and takes us along on this compelling journey. The book has been around for 12 years, but films get made when there is a commercial audience for the theme, and this is a movie whose time has come.
The Lift Boy is the second of these films, exploring the theme of the class divide. Interestingly, reviews of the 2019 film describe it as a coming-of-age story, which it is in many ways. Raju Tawde, a young, carefree boy who has failed his engineering exam four times, has a reality check when his father suffers a heart attack. Forced to fill in for him as a lift operator in a posh Mumbai building, Raju discovers the varying attitudes of residents towards people doing menial tasks. Raju also discovers some uncomfortable truths about his own past, and makes a new friend. It is less brutal and stark than The White Tiger but the social divide between the ‘Lift Boy’ and those he serves is there for all to see.
What’s interesting is the way the story bridges the social distance between the lift boy and the building’s residents with confidences exchanged in the privacy of the lift (almost like a confession booth in a church) and relationships built on empathy and financial assistance.
Princess Kapoor confides to Raju that she is being dragged into Bollywood by her ambitious mother. It is interesting that the empathy seems to come from people outside the establishment who are either too young to share its prejudices or are complete outsiders. Pinky Madam, played by Priyanka Chopra in The White Tiger, is born and raised in the U.S., and feels domestic help should be treated with respect. She stands up for Balram Halwai when her husband’s feudal family ill-treats him and even takes him into confidence when she has had enough and wants to leave.
Similarly, in Sir, the third of these interesting films, the employer who starts noticing that his maid is a human being with her own dreams and aspirations, and later develops feelings for her, is an Indian who has lived in the U.S. I suppose, thematically, it is easier to introduce an outsider as an agent of change. Whether the agent of change succeeds in converting the establishment is an open question. Each film answers it differently. In The White Tiger, the change is brought about by Balram’s ambition and he manages to forge his own future — though his family is killed and others like him remain locked in the ‘rooster coop’. No attempt at social upheaval or societal change here, just an individual’s triumph over his destiny.
In The Lift Boy, there is a change in Raju’s fortunes through a kindly benefactor, but it is not widespread change, or a shift in the general population’s attitudes towards domestic help — just a stroke of individual luck. This made the end a little implausible and spoilt an otherwise engaging film.
For me, the film that really shifted the marker in terms of social change was Sir. It does not shout revolt, nor does it set out to shock. In fact, it meanders through scenes of daily drudgery almost in slow motion. Meals being cooked, meals being served, doorbells ringing, parcels being delivered, phones ringing… because that is what a maid’s life is like. But, by the end of the film, we see the main characters not as employer and maid but as a man and woman bound by mutual respect and love. It is a bold statement but made in the most gentle and sensitive way possible.
Films don’t change society; they reflect it. And if these films are anything to go by, the right questions have begun to be asked. The way they are answered will determine how much India will change.
The writer lives in London and is the author of East or West: An NRI Mother’s Manual On How To Bring Up Desi Children Overseas.